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19 Mar 2018 8:30
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  •   Home > News > International

    American history suggests Centennials could turn the tide on the NRA

    Students have helped change the course of American history many times over the past 60 years, from the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement to anti-Vietnam War activists. Now, Gen Z is setting its sights on the gun lobby, writes Micheline Maynard.

    The Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida could have simply been destined to be added to a tragic list.

    It was the 18th gun-related episode on American school grounds this year, prompting commentators to decry the violence but expect little change in gun laws as a result.

    But Stoneman Douglas students are declaring they don't want to become just a number, organising protests, criticising President Donald Trump and confronting politicians over the contributions they have accepted from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

    The students are not only doing so in words; they plan to do so in person, organising The March For Our Lives, scheduled to take place on March 24 in Washington, DC.

    There, the Stoneman Douglas students plan to lead a drive to free the US from gun violence, and speak up for students who have been killed, injured and driven into fear by school shootings across the country.

    These students haven't even had time to go to funeral services, or see grief counsellors or even go back to class (the high school is closed until further notice). Moreover, their rally is one of three that have been called in the wake of the February 14 shooting that killed 17 students and staff.

    There also will be a Women's Action March on March 14 and the National School Walkout on April 20, all being organised swiftly, and with determination mixed with grief.

    Gen Z: 'The adults are playing around'

    In contrast to the gentle "thoughts and prayers" expressed by politicians after the shootings, these students are not mincing words.

    "My message for the people in office is: you're either with us or against us," said Cameron Kasky, a junior at Stoneman Douglas. "We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around."

    Emma Gonzalez, who has become the stunned face of her fellow Stoneman Douglas students, declared, "Because of these gun laws, people that I know — people that I love — have died".

    At a gathering this weekend, she led a chant of "We call B-S" aimed at politicians silent on potential action.

    Classmate David Hogg chimed in, "Thank you for your prayers and condolences, but that is not enough".

    Even before they reach Washington, busloads of Stoneman Douglas students will travel to the state capital of Tallahassee this week, to begin a push for changes in state laws

    It is hard to hear the students and not think of the similar response by bereft parents of the children killed in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.

    They went to Washington, telling anguished stories of losing their offspring, seeking a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks on most private party firearm sales.

    Despite the gut-wrenching stories and pleas from the parents, and support from the White House, the assault weapons ban never passed and an amendment requiring background checks also failed to get the number of votes required for Congressional passage.

    Teens without filters VS the establishment

    But as with the #MeToo movement, and perhaps because of it, the Stoneman Douglas students may have the country's mounting social awareness on their side.

    This time, it isn't grownups speaking to other grownups. It's teenagers, speaking without filters, to lawmakers who someday will need their votes, not to mention their expertise in every field.

    These students don't have the money that the NRA can throw at Washington, but they wield something more important: the country's future.

    Is it enough to erode decades of power by the gun lobby?

    Well, student activism has been a force to be reckoned with through the past 60 some years of American history.

    College students were an integral part of the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who rode buses into the American South in 1961 to challenge segregation that prevented integration on public buses.

    They encountered mob violence in Alabama and were themselves accused of provoking unrest.

    But their protests are credited for inspiring other, broader protests that culminated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, led by Martin Luther King in 1963, where he delivered his famed I Have a Dream speech.

    In what became known as a decade of student protests, nearly 100,000 people gathered again in Washington in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War, while students led other protests the following year in Paris and across Germany.

    In NRA, students face a formidable foe

    It is impossible to think of Vietnam protests now, without thinking of the students.

    And, soon, it may be impossible to think of America's reaction to gun violence without thinking of the students who stood up against it.

    These high school students are among a new generation, born from 1996 onward, that is alternatively called Generation Z, or the Centennials.

    They've seen their older counterparts across the US experience school shootings. They can see the impact those incidents have had on their younger siblings and friends, who are terrified that something will happen to them.

    They feel that the responsibility falls to them to act. Make no mistake, they know they are up against a formidable political force.

    During the 2016 election cycle, the NRA spent $1 million on direct contributions to candidates, paid out another $3.1 million on lobbying and another $54 million on outside activities, such as television ads and communication to voters and members, according to, which tracks campaign spending.

    But, students have shown before that they can affect history. "She was going to change the world," said the family of Carmen Schentrup, one of the 17 people who died.

    Perhaps now, her classmates will.

    Micheline Maynard is a US-based author and journalist.

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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